Where and why
Lying five miles south-east of Colchester, this Essex Wildlife Trust reserve encompasses a broad range of habitats in a relatively small area and is worth visiting throughout the year. An area of former gravel workings, the resulting undulating hills and hollows have been transformed into a varied mosaic of habitats, including a freshwater lake, mature secondary woodland, planted conifers, scrub, stands of reeds and areas of heath. There is also a specially constructed scrape. Immediately to the east lies the River Colne with areas of saltmarsh and mudbanks along its margins, and to the south are the extensive saltings of Geedon Marsh. An exciting new development is an intertidal wetland, created last autumn in partnership with the Environment Agency by breaching the seawall, allowing the Colne to flood former arable land.
Leave Colchester south on the B1025 towards Mersea and after about 4.5 miles turn east on a minor road towards Fingringhoe. After a further 1.5 miles, turn right (east, signed to the reserve) on a minor road towards South Green, reaching the entrance to the reserve after a further 1.5 miles. Follow this track for half a mile to the car park.
On arrival, pop into the visitor centre to pay a donation and check the sightings board. Return to the car park and head to Laurie’s Hide right down on the Scrape (TM 048191). During autumn passage a variety of waders may occur here (see below). Head back up to the visitor centre and turn right, pausing to scan the Warden’s House Lake on the left (TM 048192). Breeders here include Little and Great Crested Grebes and Reed and Sedge Warblers, as well as Kingfisher. The surrounding woodland and scrub contains breeding Sparrowhawk, European Turtle Dove, Common Cuckoo, Nightingale (up to 30-40 pairs) and Bullfinch, as well as Common and Lesser Whitethroats.
Continue on the path and take the first right to the Lower Scrape and Cranshaw Hides (TM 049191). These hides overlook the scape and saltings, where Little Egret has become increasingly regular. Barn Owls quarter the saltmarsh here. Retracing your steps and taking the first right brings you down to the Geedon Bay Hide (TM 050191). This offers terrific views of the estuary, where an early Spoonbill or passing Osprey is possible.
Retrace your steps and turn right once again to reach a viewpoint overlooking the estuary, where you can sit down at one of the benches and scan the panorama with your scope (TM 050192). Continue downhill and turn right again, following the path round and past the concrete bunkers on the left, checking the surrounding scrub for passerines.
Turn right again to arrive at Robbie’s Hide (TM 051193). This presents further close views of the estuary and river channel, as well as the North Saltmarsh. This last is particularly productive for raptors including Marsh Harrier, Hobby, Peregrine Falcon and Common Buzzard. Little and Sandwich Terns often pass up the channel.
Leave the hide and continue up to the picnic area. Take a sharp right and carry on through the East Heath and past Kit’s Pond on the right, taking the narrow footpath immediately along the end of the pond. This brings you to panoramic views of the estuary and the reserve’s extensive new tidal wetland (TM 050196). Footpaths and two hides – including one built on a promontory into the wetland – are due to be open to the public from this summer.
It is too early to say what can be seen here exactly, but expect the usual waders in far greater numbers. These include Eurasian Whimbrel, Curlew Sandpiper, Spotted Redshank, Knot, Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwits and Greenshank. Wood Sandpiper and Little Stint are possible too. The potential of this site to turn up rarities has been greatly enhanced. For waders on the estuary the period two hours either side of high water is best, but early morning can be problematic due to the east-facing aspect. Retrace your steps and follow signs back to the visitor centre.
Sites and access
The reserve is open daily from 9 am-5 pm. Entry is by suggested donation of £2 per adult, £1 per child or £5 per family of four. The 175 bus from Colchester Town train station takes just under half an hour to Fingringhoe (www.firstgroup.com). The reserve is then a 30-45 minute walk from the village along the Gravel Pit Trail. Look out for the breeding Sand Martins. Refreshments and toilets are available in the visitor centre, which has excellent facilities for the disabled, including access to the reserve and certain hides.
Ordnance Survey Explorer 184 and Landrangers 168 and 169.
• www.essexwt.org.uk for details of this and other nearby reserves.
• www.ebws.org.uk for local bird news and sightings.
• Follow on Twitter: @EssexWildlife and @BirdGuides.